Burning Man is an art-and-music festival celebrating radical self-expression and self-reliance in the setting of a temporary city just north of Reno, Nevada. At approximately 60,000 citizens, it is Nevada’s third-largest city for one week out of every year, and it is a true city, complete with a Department of Public Works, a DMV (the Department of Mutant Vehicles, regulating the creative content of the city’s art cars), and its own highly skilled volunteer law enforcement agency, the Black Rock Rangers. The city of Black Rock springs out of a certain dimension of the collective consciousness like a mirage, built and then just as quickly unbuilt, or, more famously, burned in celebration on the immense flats of a prehistoric lake bed commonly known as the Playa.
For most Burners, it’s a real challenge to explain what it is to someone who hasn’t yet attended. For some, it’s a giant rave, a massive experiment in hedonism, a crazed gathering of Mad Max fans, and a sea of dirty hippies reveling in merriment and dust. For others, it’s the greatest social experiment in recent history. For still others, the Playa forms the setting for the world’s greatest large-scale art gallery and an unparalleled opportunity to attend lectures by some of the planet’s most cutting-edge thinkers and creators – even the TED conference has a presence at Burning Man. It is a chance for some to reinvent themselves, to take a new name, a new face, and a wholly new way of relating to other people. In its 26-year history, it has been all of those things and much, much more to the hordes of teachers, architects, expats, farmers, lawyers, dancers, doctors, designers, marketing execs, CFOs, booksellers, Silicon Valley heavyweights, lovers, fire freaks, skydivers, and dreamers who make the annual pilgrimage to Black Rock City.
“Where does tea play into all this?” you may ask. Since a central tenet of Burning Man is that all commerce is a pure expression of gift culture, tea is very apropos in Black Rock City. I had been invited by my partner to be a part of a camp that contributed a beautiful, modular geometric palace called The Otic Oasis, commissioned to be the defined public silent space of Black Rock City – the only large-scale structure built in an area where amplified sound is forbidden. The Oasis, designed by genius Culver City architect Gregg Fleishman, was a multi-story structure made entirely of tension-fitted wooden pieces that resemble a human-scale beehive in its proportions and absolutely natural quality.
In agreement with the Oasis, we rose before sunrise every morning and made our way out to the Oasis to pour gongfu tea at daybreak. Knowing that Black Rock Desert isn’t a forgiving environment in general and that yixing clay would not make it through the week, we brought glass and ceramic teaware, which held up just fine. Every morning, as the moon set over Granite Peak and the sun shot its first dazzling rays over the eastern horizon, we sat quietly, boiled spring water in a glass kettle over an open flame, and shared a most beautiful variety of Oolongs and Puerhs with whomever happened to be present – early birds awake to catch the sunrise from the top of the Oasis as well as stragglers still awake from the night before. Each morning saw new faces, between five and ten at any given moment, and we would drink tea together for several hours. A favorite tea was a wild Puerh from the late nineties, which brought the extraordinary aroma and taste of a primeval forest to a place that hasn’t seen the growth of trees in millennia. On the last morning of the week, I poured a 2002 Shou Puerh brick for 16 people, the largest group of the week.
This was my fourth year attending the festival and the first year successfully sharing a tea ceremony. There were other camps and individuals inhabiting the city that shared tea throughout the week, and it seems as though it is catching on as a choice gift to share – there is nothing more welcoming on a long and dusty night than the nourishment of tea in good company. The spirit of giving is very strong at Burning Man, and tea was received with large smiles and humble hearts.
Additional editing by Pamela Samuelson.